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Living in Japan
What You Should Know about Living in Japan
There are many customs and traditions to be aware of when living in Japan. As an island country full of 127 million people, space is limited, but this does not mean you should expect shoving and shouting. Instead, Japanese culture dictates waiting in line, and expats will rarely hear a car honk, even in the middle of Tokyo.
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Are you wondering how it is to live in Japan? Images of the country typically include snow-capped mountains, bustling city streets, and conveyor belts of sushi. While these are all true, there are other practicalities to be aware of when making the Land of the Rising Sun your new home.
One important custom to learn when moving to Japan is the proper way to handle chopsticks. Chopsticks are used in most meals in Japan. It is important to place your chopsticks on the table correctly whenever you are not using them. Incorrect positions can be rude or, worse, a symbol for death. You can learn more about this in our Culture and Social Etiquette section.
There are many pros and cons to living in Japan and expats can feel overwhelmed with the list of dos and don’ts. Luckily, Japanese society is very welcoming of foreigners and forgiving should you commit a faux pas.
Whether you need to know how to greet people in Japan, the best way to set up communications, such as your phone or internet, or tips on driving and public transportation, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know to feel at home in this exciting Asian nation.
Pros and Cons of Living in Japan
What are the pros and cons of living in Japan? Most expats who have already settled in the country will agree that there are many more advantages than there are disadvantages. In fact, in a society as advanced and efficient as Japan, what constitutes as a drawback will likely be based on personal preferences.
Benefits of Living in Japan
- Convenience. Like many Asian countries, Japan is surrounded by convenience. 7-Eleven and Lawson shops can be found every few blocks, providing people with such items as basic groceries, hot meals, medicine, liquor, and even small electronics.
- Transportation is expansive and efficient. It is easy to live in Japan without a car. Trains and buses run regularly. The high-speed Shinkansen train, also known as the “bullet train”, moves riders throughout the country at speeds of up to 240-320 km/h (150-200 mph). You can read more about this in our Public Transportation section below.
- Food is delicious. Even if you are not a fan of sushi, it is easy to find tasty food throughout Japan. In general, Japanese culture is known for its high-quality seafood, rice and vegetable dishes, and sweet desserts. Noodle dishes such as ramen and yakisoba are also popular and easy to find at cheap prices.
- Shopping is great. No matter where you are in Japan, you will find plenty of great shopping opportunities. Whether it is a major department store or eclectic boutique shop, it is possible to find something to suit every taste.
- Healthcare is top rate. Japan’s healthcare system is universal and one of the best in the world. Hospitals are equipped with advanced, modern technology and doctors and nurses are highly trained. Medicines are stronger than what expats will find in other countries. This means dosages will be higher and you will need a prescription for most medications.
Downsides of Living in Japan
- Cost of living is very high. In addition to being an island nation, and thus requiring most goods to be imported, Japanese culture also demands high-quality items and service. Unfortunately, with this high-quality comes high costs. You can read more about this in our Cost of Living in Japan.
- Work-life balance is nearly non-existent. Japanese business culture expects employees to treat the workplace as an extension of their family. This means the same time and dedication one would normally spend on family and friends outside of work, should instead be spent at the office. Working over 12 hours a day is not uncommon, and is often expected, even of foreigners.
- Work stress leads to over imbibing. In addition to the normal health problems, work stress can bring, the work-life imbalance in Japan leads many employees to go straight from the office to the bar. Japan has a large culture of “after-work drinks.” It is not uncommon for workers to guzzle too much nearly every night of the week.
- Homes are small. If you like spacious accommodation, Japan may not be the best place for you. In a country where space is limited, houses and apartments are designed to take up as little space as possible. Over time, this can make residents feel cramped and claustrophobic in their own home.
- Natural disasters are an ever-present threat. Japan sits on the Ring of Fire, which is a horseshoe-shaped rift in the Pacific Ocean, where tectonic plates touch. These plates create frequent earthquakes in Japan. Quakes range from minor rumbles to building-destroying shakes. Some can even produce devastating tsunamis, such as the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which killed nearly 16,000 people.
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|Emergency: fire or ambulance||119|
Much of Japan’s societal beliefs are reflected in their public holidays. Expats will take particular notice of holidays that honor one’s age and holidays that honor Japan’s natural environment: the sea, mountains, and forests.
New Year’s Day—January 1st
New Year’s Day celebrates the first day of the calendar New Year.
Coming-of-age Day—Second Monday of January
The second Monday of every January celebrates those in Japan who will turn 20 years old that year. 20 is the age people in Japan are legally allowed to vote and drink. Local governments throw a seijin shiki (adult ceremony) to celebrate the new adults.
National Foundation Day—February 11
National Foundation Day celebrates the mythological founding of Japan in 660 BC and the ascension of the first Emperor, Jimmu.
The Emperor’s Birthday
This holiday is celebrated on the birthday of the current reigning emperor. The current emperor of Japan is Emperor Naruhito, whose birthday is February 23.
Vernal Equinox Day
Vernal Equinox Day occurs on the date of the Northward equinox, which is usually March 20 or 21.
Shōwa Day—April 29 (Golden Week)
This holiday marks the start of Golden Week, which contains six separate holidays. Shōwa Day celebrates the birthday of Emperor Shōwa, who ruled Japan from 1926 to 1989.
Constitutional Memorial Day—May 3 (Golden Week)
As its name suggests, Constitutional Memorial Day celebrates the formal proclamation on Japan’s constitution in 1947.
Greenery Day—May 4 (Golden Week)
Greenery Day is associated with Emperor Shōwa’s birthday. It is a nationally recognized holiday to give appreciation to nature.
Children’s Day—May 5 (Golden Week)
This holiday marks the official end of Golden Week. It is celebrated to honor the children of Japan.
Marine Day—Third Monday in July
Marine Day is a national celebration to honor the sea.
Mountain Day—August 11
Mountain Day is Japan’s newest national holiday, established to honor the mountains.
Respect for the Aged Day—Third Monday of September
This holiday celebrates the elderly population of Japan. Japanese nationals typically celebrate by returning to the homes where their grandparents and/or parents still live.
Autumnal Equinox Day—September 22 or 23
This holiday celebrates the Southward equinox.
Health and Sports Day—Second Monday of October
Health and Sports Day commemorates the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Activities and events promote an active, healthy lifestyle.
Culture Day celebrate Japan’s culture, arts, and academic achievements.
Labor Thanksgiving Day—November 23
This holiday celebrates Japan’s labor force and promotes giving thanks to one another.
The main embassies of Japan can be found in Tokyo or Osaka, with a few also found in Sapporo, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. For a complete list of embassies in Japan you can consult Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s website.
Japan’s primary airport is Narita Airport, which services Tokyo. After that, the next major airport is Kansai Airport in Osaka. Other large airports include Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Central Japan Airport in Nagoya, and Fukuoka Airport in Fukuoka.
Culture and Social Etiquette
As an expat, understanding the cultural and social etiquette of your new home is important to not committing a grievous faux pas. In a country as steeped in customs and traditions as Japan, this is especially important.
Japanese society is renowned for its politeness and reserved quality. Culturally, it is frowned upon to draw too much attention to yourself, and it is especially taboo to draw attention to others. Even when having a disagreement at work, it is more acceptable to stop talking and let the moment pass rather than continue to fight.
Worried about fitting in in Japan? InterNations GO! provides cultural training with local experts who will help you learn all you need to know to adapt to Japanese society. We can set you up with individual training or group courses for your whole family.
When most people think of greetings in Japan, they think of bowing. In Japanese society, it is common to see people bow when greeting one another. This is done by bending at the waist, keeping your back and neck straight with your arms either at your side or fingertips touching and at thigh-level.
As a foreigner, you are not expected to bow when greeting people. Instead, you can simply nod your head. Do not try to shake hands unless the other person initiates.
Hierarchy in Japan is very important. There is great respect for elders, as is indicted by the national holiday specifically celebrating the elderly. Observance of hierarchy is most important in Japanese work culture, but you should be aware of it in every day interactions as well. This means that when you are interacting with someone older than you, it is important to be polite. For example, holding doors open and allowing someone older than you to walk through first.
Eating and Drinking
There are many manners and customs that must be observed in regard to eating in Japan. For example, if eating with a group of people and sharing dishes, you must not eat from the communal plate. Instead, place food onto your own, individual plate and eat from there. Be sure to only take what you can finish as it is impolite to leave food on your plate.
Never pour your own drink. Instead, you should pour a drink for others and leave yours empty. Someone will then pour a drink for you.
Contrary to other cultures, in Japan it is seen as polite to slurp noodle dishes. The louder you slurp, the more of a compliment it is considered to the chef. Conversely, while it may seem like no big deal to eat while walking in other countries, in Japan it is considered rude. If you need to eat on the go you should go to one of Japan’s many convenience stores and eat at the countertops provided.
Unless you eat nothing but Western food while living in Japan, you are bound to use chopsticks. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the rules that go along with the utensils.
For starters, chopsticks are exactly that: a utensil. Do not use them as a toy by playing with them at the dinner table, nor should you use them to point. If dining with a group of people, you should not hover them in the air while you are deciding what to eat. Instead, lay them on the hashioki, the small chopstick rest. If there is no hashioki, create one out of the paper that the chopsticks came in. Never place chopsticks sticking straight up in a bowl of rice, as this is a symbol for funerals and death.
When holding chopsticks, you should not rub them together. Non-Japanese people typically do this with wooden chopsticks to rid them of splinters and residue, but it is seen as very rude in Japan. You should also hold them near the top, keeping your hand away from accidentally touching the food.
In Japan, it is seen as rude and aggressive to point with one finger. If you are giving directions or gesturing to something, you should instead use your whole hand with your fingers held straight.
Feet and Shoes
A well-known custom in Japan is taking off your shoes before entering someone’s home. This is extremely important because not doing so is seen as a grave insult in Japan and may cause tension between you and the homeowner. Expats should also take note that removing your shoes is also customary in some businesses. Pay attention to signs outside shops or whether you see groups of shoes lined up in front of a business. It is common for businesses to provide indoor slippers.
Driving in Japan
With its well-maintained roads and gorgeous scenery, driving in Japan is a great option for any expat hoping to see more of the country. Luckily, getting a driver’s license is easy although, depending on the country that you come from, it may take some time and paperwork.
How to get a Japanese Driving License
If you are a national from a country with which Japan has an agreement, you need only to bring your license and a certified Japanese translation to a Japanese Driving Center. You can get an official translation of your license through the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). At the driving center you will have a short interview before being issued a Japanese driving license. The following countries have an agreement in place with Japan:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK.
Nationals from all other countries will need to take a written and practical driving exam.
Whether or not you are exempt from taking a Japanese driving exam, everyone applying for a Japanese driving license will need to submit the following documents:
- your valid driving license;
- official translation of your license;
- residence (zairyu)
If you do not have a driving license from your previous country, you will need to take all the necessary steps to apply for a brand-new license just like a Japanese national. If you do have a driving license, you will need to prove that you have had it for longer than 90 days.
The average cost of a Japanese license is about 5,000 JPY (50 USD).
Driving in Japan with a UK/US/European License
Most expats intending to live in Japan will either need a Japanese driving license or an International Driving License. If you have an International Driving License, you can only drive on it for one year upon your arrival in Japan. After a year is up, you will need to switch to a Japanese driving license.
Driving Rules in Japan
Driving rules in Japan are similar to those found in most highly developed countries. However, there are a few things to be aware of in order to maintain road safety.
- Cars drive on the left side of the road. Drivers also sit on the left side of the car.
- The typical speed limits are 80 to 100 km/h on expressways, 40 km/h in urban areas, 30 km/h in side streets, and 50 to 60 km/h elsewhere (50 to 60 mph on expressways, 25 mph in urban areas, 20 mph in side streets, and 30 to 40 mph elsewhere).
- Drivers generally tend to be well mannered and considerate. It is frowned upon to drive aggressively and honking is rare.
- The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18.
- Signs on major roads are in Japanese and English.
- Vehicles must come to a full stop before crossing train tracks (even if there is no train approaching).
Renting a Car in Japan
You may rent a car in Japan with a foreign driving license, but you will need a Japanese translation of the license. You must also be at least 18 years old in order to rent or drive a rental car. Rental prices will vary depending on the type of car, but prices generally average around 10,000 JPY (100 USD) per day.
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Public Transportation in Japan
When most people think about the public transportation in Japan, they typically think of it as fast and efficient. This is largely due to Japan’s famous bullet train (Shinkansen) and news stories of the Japanese government issuing formal apologies when trains do not run exactly on time.
Learning how to use Japan’s public transportation system is easy as long as you are aware of certain etiquettes. For example, people in Japan line up to board a train. You will see lines and arrows on the ground indicating where the line should form. It is important not to cut or push anyone in line. Likewise, if you are issued a ticket with a seat number, it is important that you sit in your assigned space.
Types of Public Transportation in Japan
Japan has every type of public transportation system imaginable. From trains to buses and ferries, those who prefer not to drive in Japan will still be able to get around the country easily. In Japan’s big cities, you will find trains and buses are equally popular modes of transportation. Pink colored train cars are for women and young children only.
Cost of Public Transport in Japan
When compared to the cost of everything else in Japan, public transport is fairly reasonable. Amounts will vary depending on the type of transportation you use and how far you want to go.
|Type of Transport||JPY||USD|
|Bullet train one-way ticket||20,000||185|
|Tokyo metro single fare (train and bus)||170-310||1.50–2.80|
|Kyoto metro single fare (train and bus)||210-350||1.90–3.20|
|Tokyo one-day pass (train and bus)||600||5.50|
|Kyoto one-day pass (train and bus)||900||8.30|
|Taxi standard fare||500-1,000||4.60-10|
If you plan to travel throughout Japan extensively when you first arrive, it may be worth looking into the Japan Rail Pass (sometimes called the JR Pass). This is a discounted pass that provides unlimited train travel for 7, 14, and 21-day periods throughout the country. There are even versions of the pass that are for specific Japanese cities, such as the Hiroshima pass or Tokyo pass.
This pass is largely meant for tourists and can only be purchased from abroad. Prices range from 25,000-70,000 JPY (230-650 USD) depending on the length of time you book the pass for and whether you want a standard or first class (called the green card) ticket.
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